The building blocks of learning

08 February 2019

CPs can help develop the four key competencies present at birth and plug gaps in children’s cognitive development, says Kirsten Asmussen of the Early Intervention Foundation.

Lego Building Blocks iStock

The ‘chat, play and read’ behaviour change parenting model recently promoted by secretary of state for education Damian Hinds emphasises the important role that the home-learning environment plays in supporting children’s early cognitive development.

I am the lead author on a major new report from the Early Intervention Foundation (EIF), Key competencies in early cognitive development: things, people, numbers and words (see Resources on page 50), which describes how the home-learning environment, as well as other important family processes, supports the development of four cognitive competencies that are present at birth and are believed to form the building blocks of all future learning:

  • Children’s knowledge of the physical world
  • Their understanding of the intentions of others
  • Their numerical reasoning capabilities
  • Language and communication skills.

The report begins by describing how typical development within each of the competencies begins, and considers how the child’s circumstances contribute to learning gaps that are observable from the child’s second year onwards. It also examines how early learning gaps might be reduced with effective early intervention provided by those involved in the commissioning and delivery of early years services.

Given how early gaps in children’s cognitive development can emerge, it is vital that health visitors and others providing support to families are aware of how children’s cognitive development occurs, and which interventions and approaches are likely to support positive outcomes for children, especially those growing up in the most disadvantaged circumstances.   


Early learning experiences

Early cognitive development occurs at a phenomenal pace. During the nine months before birth, over 100 billion brain cells are produced and form over 50 trillion synaptic connections, which create the architecture for a core set of cognitive skills already present at birth. These skills include the ability to visually track moving objects, distinguish critical features of the human face, discriminate between more and less, and recognise familiar voices.

As children develop, these skills provide the basis for those four key competencies that represent the building blocks for all future learning.

During the first few years of life, these four competencies develop spontaneously in response to input from the child’s physical and psychological environment. However, as we describe in the report, the quality of this input strongly influences the pace at which these competencies develop. In particular, studies show that the quality of object play that occurs between infants and their caregivers during the first 12 months strongly predicts vocabulary size at age two and the ability to understand the perspective of others at age four.

Throughout toddlerhood and early pre-school, the quality of early learning experiences continues to predict children’s intellectual and language development. Enriching learning experiences that particularly predict individual differences in early cognitive development include trips to museums and parks, informal number games, and conversations with caregivers about feelings and thoughts – particularly those that correspond with children’s personal interests.


Activities that support children’s cognitive development during the first three years

  • Play-based activities that allow children to physically explore and manipulate objects
  • Play-based activities that help children learn the names of objects and engage in symbolic object play
  • Conversations with adults that follow the child’s lead and are specific to the child’s interests
  • Enriching educational materials, which include arts and crafts supplies and educational matching games
  • Regular outings to libraries, museums, parks and gardens to provide children with opportunities to learn about the physical world
  • Activities that encourage children to count out objects
  • Conversations about small and large number values
  • Conversations about the relationships between objects and complex object systems
  • Understanding the perspectives of others through stories and role-play activities.


The impact of income

Our review also summarises evidence showing that individual differences in cognitive competencies are consistently associated with family income from a very 
early age.

  • Income-related differences in children’s word-processing skills are clearly present by 18 months.
  • Differences in high- and low-income children’s knowledge of the physical world are present at age three.
  • Income-related gaps in children’s numerical reasoning skills and the ability to adopt the perspectives of others are clearly evident by age four. These gaps then continue to increase in magnitude until children are ready to leave secondary school.


Reducing income-related learning gaps

Knowledge that pervasive learning gaps exist along the lines of income is not new, although knowing that gaps are present at age three or earlier is. These findings highlight the importance of evidence-based activities to support the learning needs of low-income children as a way of reducing these gaps and increasing their school readiness. They also emphasise the need for this support to start early, preferably during the child’s first year, if not before.

Our review also identifies a number of interventions and activities with good evidence of reducing income-related learning gaps in children’s language skills and motivation to learn. In particular, there is good evidence that intensive home visits occurring on a monthly basis from the first year onwards can improve disadvantaged children’s early language skills and motivation to learn. During these visits, parents learn age-appropriate strategies (see Activities that support children’s cognitive development during the first three years above) for supporting their child’s natural curiosity by creating an enriching home-learning environment and responding sensitively to their child’s learning needs. The interventions with the best evidence of success start early, within the first few months of life and then carry on for a year or more.

Evidence also shows that enriching childcare and early years education starting at the age of two has the potential to rectify income-related learning gaps if delivered to a high standard.


The importance of the early years workforce

Collectively, these findings emphasise the importance of the early years workforce in supporting the learning needs of low-income children.

Health visitors play a particularly important role in identifying children with early learning delays through the ongoing assessments that take place during the universally provided health checks. They are also in an ideal position to deliver and coordinate effective home-visiting support during the child’s first two years.

Early years educators are essential for coordinating and delivering high-quality early years childcare and education. In particular, our review identifies ‘two-generation’ support – which combines high-quality early years education with individualised advice for parents – as particularly beneficial for increasing the school readiness for low-income children.

Speech and language therapists also play an important role in assessing the language needs of children and providing individualised therapeutic support when specific delays are expected. They also play an important role in providing valuable training, coaching and support for practitioners working in early years settings.

Good commissioning is critical for ensuring that effective interventions are made available to families who need them the most. This means having strategies for determining who these vulnerable families are and developing systems for ensuring that the most effective interventions are available. Our Key competencies report provides a secure starting point for considering how this work might be done. 

Kirsten Asmussen is head of What Works, Child Development, at the Early Intervention Foundation. She is a developmental psychologist with expertise in the parent/child relationship and author of the Evidence-based parenting practitioner’s handbook (2011). 

Time to reflect

What have been your experiences of what helps and hinders early years cognitive development and what strategies have you used for vulnerable children who may be falling behind? Share any insights and join the conversation on Twitter @CommPrac using #EarlyYears


  • The report Key competencies in early cognitive development: things, people, numbers and words can be found at bit.ly/EIF_key_competencies
  • Read an EIF overview of the importance of early intervention for supporting children’s development at bit.ly/EIF_early_intervention
  • The UK government’s recent behaviour change approach for enhancing the quality of the home-learning environment is detailed at bit.ly/UKG_behaviour_change
  • The EIF looks at the evidence update for an effective Healthy Child Programme at bit.ly/EIF_HCP_enhance


Image credit | iStock

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